Choosing the language for communicating with a people group can be perplexing. For example, in the southern Philippines a missionary working with the Saragani Manobo people is forced to choose between three languages. Tagalog is the national language of the Philippines. Cebuano is the regional language spoken in the southern Philippines. Saragani Manobo is the local or tribal language. Of course, it would be helpful, even ideal, if the missionary learned all three. However, most on-location supervisors would be delighted if the missionary learned one language well. So what should the missionary do?

Most people respond better to the gospel when they hear it in their heart language, that is, the language learned from one’s mother. The national language is not the heart language for many people. That would seem to indicate that the local language, Saragani Manobo, is the best choice here. However, Saragani Manobo is not widely spoken, and the missionary would find it difficult to communicate outside the tribal area. Some missionaries try to learn the national or regional language and then the local language. Thus, they learn two languages. Other missionaries learn the national or regional language at the survival level (enough to travel) but focus their intensive learning on the local language. When a couple or a team of missionaries is involved, they may choose to learn different languages, so that someone can function in every needed language. Veteran missionaries and supervisors connected locally can provide valuable advice about language learning.

Regardless of the choice made, language learning is a key to missionary effectiveness. Language competency goes a long way toward ensuring that the message is understood. Also, language proficiency helps one to understand the culture more fully. For example, in Cebuano one would never say, “Gibuak ko ang plato” (I broke the plate). Rather, a Cebuano would say, “Nakabuak ang plato” (The plate “happened” to break). This difference in expression reveals an important truth about accepting personal responsibility in the Cebuano culture. This, in turn, helps the missionary understand how the people understand sin and shame. So contextualization begins with learning the appropriate language well.

Terry, John Mark, and J. D. Payne. Developing a Strategy for Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Introduction. Encountering Mission. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.